Chicago Public Schools leaders have reversed their decision to abruptly shutter all four neighborhood high schools in Englewood in June and instead will let current students stay through graduation at three of the four schools.
CPS plans to build a new, $85 million high school on the campus of Robeson High School, 6835 S. Normal, that will open in the fall of 2019 — a year after Robeson, Hope, Harper and Team Englewood high schools were to close. Robeson will still be closed after the current school year, to allow for construction of the new school. Current eighth-graders will have to find schools outside of the community.
The original plan to close all of the schools after this school year drew complaints at a series of community meetings, as did the fact that current students of those schools can’t attend the new “state of the art” facility and are to be sent elsewhere.
In a Facebook post Monday, Ald. Willie Cochran, whose ward includes Englewood, congratulated CPS on “the decision to listen to the concerns of the community relative to ‘not’ closing 4 Englewood Schools.”
“The New campus will be built at Robeson and the students at the other schools targeted for closing will be able to stay through graduation at those schools. No new students will be allowed to enroll,” Cochran wrote. “It’s nice to know someone is listening and shows some sensitivity.”
Janice Jackson, the new Chicago schools CEO, who had backed the initial plan, said Monday after Cochran broke the news about the change in plans, “It was really important that children have an opportunity to stay in their schools — that was probably the most compelling case.
“I also heard especially from the students at Harper who said you know what, ‘I want to stay in my school, this is a family to me, I want to graduate with my classmates,'” she said during an interview at CPS headquarters. “I thought that that was the best way to put the responsibility back on the students and the families and let them make the best choice for them.”
CPS has lost about 30,000 students in the past five years. Officials have said that enrollment has fallen too far at the four schools to be able to provide a well-rounded high school education.
Students who’ve organized to try to save their schools said the temporary reprieve isn’t enough.
“We came a long way from them saying they were going to close all schools in Englewood,” said Robeson junior Jakil Benson. “Now they’re saying they’re only going to close one.
“Just got to keep fighting. That’s all there is to it. Can’t give up now,” he said.
Hope sophomore Miracle Boyd said several teachers who read the writing on the wall have already left. “It’s not our fault,” she said. “We shouldn’t be held accountable for low enrollment.”
“We’re on a mission to keep our schools open, not just for three years, but permanently,” said Harper senior Tina Brown.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said the decision to phase out Harper, Hope and TEAM Englewood solves at least some of the political problems Mayor Rahm Emanuel created with the consolidation plan.
“If this is what the community asked for, CPS responded adequately and allowed the community to have input into what goes on for the future of their children,” said Sawyer, who represents parts of Englewood.
Sawyer said he thinks students at the four high schools would have been “better served” by the original, now-abandoned plan to “create profiles for them and find a school they could attend to really get a high school experience.
“I just don’t think you’re gonna get a high school experience when you’ve got 75 people in the whole school,” the alderman said. “But I would encourage you to look at the transcripts. I was there at all the meetings. And there was overwhelming support for keeping most of the schools open.”
No freshmen will be admitted to Harper, Hope and TEAM Englewood next year, CPS said. Jackson said some $8.5 million in money set aside for a transition would remain in place for students who stay or leave if the Chicago Board of Ed approves the revised plan as soon as Feb. 28. CPS also will finance a study to see how Harper’s building might be reused.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which has opposed the closings, welcomed the news but called on CPS to make sure the schools to be phased out remain solid options for the students who stay. One of the last CPS phaseouts, Dyett High School, got down to just 12 seniors in its final year and they had to take several courses online.
“It’s a recognition that coming into a neighborhood and wiping out all the public schools was really untenable,” Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey said by telephone. “This is something which is a difference between having an ideologue and someone who actually is used to working with kids. From the outside you might not realize what a big deal it is to graduate. But if you’ve taught in public high schools, which I have done for 20 years, getting to the finish line is a big deal, and a lot of kids don’t make it.”
He also said the backlash “makes the mayor nervous as he nears another election cycle.”
The Englewood high school consolidation compromise has political side-benefits for a mayor one year away from what’s expected to be a tough re-election bid.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), whose ward includes Harper, said he doesn’t believe the compromise was driven by the 2019 mayoral election.
“My residents delivered over 700 signatures asking for Harper to remain open. I met with the mayor and his team numerous times to try and plead the case for my community,” Lopez said. “This shows that the mayor, when presented with the facts, is willing to listen. I don’t think his re-election had anything to do with it.”
Lopez had asked for an alternative for Harper.
“An independent study will be done to see what we can do to make Harper High School a value to the community as a whole once again,” he said.
Pressed to explain what revitalization of Harper might look like, Lopez raised the possibility of a “K-through-12 academy” or a “specialized high school that’s vocation-specific,” as he put it.
“There are a lot of opportunities we’ve brought forward in the past for Harper that I don’t think CPS was ready to discuss. But now, thanks to Dr. Jackson and the mayor’s interest in preserving Harper’s legacy in West Englewood, those options are hopefully back on the table for consideration,” he said.